November 26, 1789 ~ (219 years ago today)
George Washington proclaimed "day of Thanksgiving"
Photo: Courtesy Skinner Inc., Boston.
NEW HAVEN, CT.- The Yale University Art Gallery announces the acquisition of Robert Field's portrait miniature of George Washington. Price paid: $303,000. What makes this miniature rare is its personal meaning to our first president's family. It was commissioned by Martha Washington in 1800 to commemorate her husband's life and to ease her family's grief. The 2-3/4" x 2-1/4" watercolor-on-ivory portrait is housed in its original locket; inset on the reverse over a woven lock of Washington's hair is a rose-gold "GW" cipher. Hair, which survives time and decay, was often incorporated into keepsakes of love and loss. Martha Washington gave this miniature to her step-granddaughter, Sarah "Sally" Stuart, and it has been passed down through the family since its completion in 1801.
Field's portrait of George Washington joins an extraordinary miniature of Martha Washington already in the Yale University Art Gallery's collection. Both were painted at her request by Field in 1801 as part of the same commission. The artist's informal portrait of Martha portrays her as a mourning widow, signified by the black ribbon on her cap. The miniature's locket has a decorative reverse adorned with sixty-seven pearls, George Washington's age at the time of his death. Martha Washington originally gave this miniature to her great-granddaughter, Frances Parke Lewis (Mrs. E. G. H. Butler). It was acquired by Yale in 1947.
Intended to be cherished by family members, these expressive keepsakes allow us to glimpse George and Martha Washington as a private couple rather than as public icons. The reunited pair will be introduced to the public in the Gallery's traveling exhibition "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery", on view at the Seattle Art Museum from February 26-May 24, 2009.
Portrait History: Robert Field (ca. 1769-1819) produced eight miniatures at Martha's request in 1800 to commemorate the revered President on the one-year anniversary of his death. Six of them, given to friends, showed him in civilian dress. Only two miniatures, given to family, showed Washington in full military uniform; one of these is the recent Yale acquisition.
Among the most accomplished British-born miniaturists working in America, Field painted portraits of prominent citizens-merchants, judges, generals, and politicians-in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston. In contrast to many American portrait miniaturists, who painted opaquely on small ivory disks, Field, who arrived in Baltimore in 1794, brought with him a more luminous technique for painting on a larger ivory. In this portrait, his crisp draftsmanship defines Washington's uniform. The artist's characteristically sinuous strokes transcribe the curving contours of Washington's face, with the glowing ivory support serving as highlights in the flesh tones and the vigorous sgraffito, or scraping, giving delineation to the eyelids and irises. Field posed Washington against a gray sky that brightens at right to draw our attention to the sitter's face. Washington engages the viewer with a slight but tender smile and an intimate, direct gaze.
The Yale University Art Gallery is a center for the study of American portrait miniatures. These reunited portraits of George and Martha Washington, painted as tokens of marital love and familial devotion, will be seen and studied by visitors, schoolchildren, scholars, faculty, and students for generations to come.